You call that a jam?

Mountain Jam 2011.

Mountain Jam comes to Hunter May 31-June 3

Mountain Jam’s 2012 logo is a classic, compact bit of psych-art, toned down perhaps for more sober times but still singing unironically of ’60s rock ‘n’ roll creation mythology: a blooming golden mandala with Azteclike characters around its circumference and Warren Haynes’ sunburst Les Paul nested in its lapping solar center. Missing (or at least tamed) is the trippy font of yore, the dripping characters that barely concede the date, time and location of the event as they melt into an entheogenic reality beyond the reach of language. Otherwise, this logo looks like the Fillmore stamp of authenticity.

In contrast to its revolutionary origins and resonances, psychedelic art is about as stable and lasting a brand image as we have in our culture anymore. And that’s not a criticism. Sometimes, styles endure because they own a share of symbolic truth. Jam music itself, however, appears to be a brand both in bloom and in crisis. Looking over the wildly diverse lineup for the eighth annual Mountain Jam, you might ask what the word even means anymore. It is a term in distress, asked here to forge a family unity amongst the Roots and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Spearhead and the Ben Folds Five, classic rock icon Steve Winwood and electro-punk James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Perhaps the word “jam” has gone post-meaning, as genre names are wont to do. Just ask “pop” or “alternative,” if you can tell them apart.

When I was growing up, jam enjoyed a stable definition. It referred to rock music with its song forms cracked open by improvised instrumental interludes. It did not typically describe the sophisticated ensemble interaction and improvisation of the kind found in jazz. Jam was really more about long solos over high-energy grooves. Jams were structured via a finite, even measly set of stock dynamic moves: various kinds of crowd-pleasing crescendos and breakdowns that gave the audience a sense of arc, of “journey,” before the resumption of the song form. (The audience, needless to say, was in a heightened state of sensitivity to the suggestion of a journey.)

Jam implied a coherent set of musical and cultural values that could all be associated in one way or another with the Grateful Dead:

· Jam was psychic transport. It offered the chance, but never the ironclad promise, of Jerry Garcia’s “golden yummies”: short-lived moments of transcendent coherence, lasting “seconds on end,” Phil Lesh added. By nature, no one could guarantee you golden yummies with your ticket purchase – else they would be false yummies, canned yummies. With jam, you took your chances.

· Jam was live, communal and “open-source.” The moment of music was the joint possession of player and crowd, and was there to be freely documented and shared but not monetized.

· Jam was high-tech. Believe it. The Grateful Dead was one of the first bands to take the challenge of stadium sound seriously, and ever since, the scene has been obsessed with sound gear.

· Jam was roots recovery and space travel all at once, nostalgic and futuristic. While roots acts today are more likely to celebrate the influence of Dylan and the Band, primary Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter traveled the same terrain of fragmented American myth. Secondary Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow pioneered the Internet. So if you were wondering why the scene has readily embraced electronica, even though it seems aesthetically at odds with jam’s organic values, there you go.

Not everyone is happy with Mountain Jam’s loss of stylistic focus and the dilution of its values. Read the reactions to the lineup announcement at the Mountain Jam website. The jam-band core demographic – the field force that keeps the rustic engine of commerce running at this festival and countless lesser ones – might be feeling a little taken for granted here at jam’s center stage. There’s nothing Phishy about it.

In truth, a pell-mell heterogeneity defines the genre and always has – an expression of the tolerant hedonism that is jam’s libertarian legacy. And while there is a purist jam-band sound (String Cheese Incident et cetera), jam was never so much a distinct style as a module that could be implemented in any number of styles. All jam asks is that you be “real,” as opposed to canned and calculated, and that you groove in your fashion. The undisguised corporate presence on the scene might provoke some cynicism in those for whom jam is a complete set of cultural values, but commercialization and commodification have been a part of this story from Haight-Ashbury on.

Anyway, the jam scene – from the tie-dyed-in-the-wool Bedouins to the professional-class weekend warriors – should actually be congratulating itself. Hey, look what has come flocking into your field: All other kinds of music. Why have they come? The jazz guitarists, the folkie singer/songwriters, the indie bands, the blues legends, the positivity rappers, the techno producers, the worldbeats? Because you are the last great live audience out there.

Your worth is measured not only in the festival tickets that you buy and the falafel and beer that you consume, but in what you provide the artists as well: a willing audience that does not expect “just the hits”; a complicit audience that would rather hear a band try something than play it safe; an audience that doesn’t care much about waist size and wardrobe as long as the music goes somewhere. Behind the almost-irreconcilable diversity of the Mountain Jam lineup is your own brilliant receptivity to music in the moment. Be proud. Take a bow. And then demand more Umphrey’s McGee or else.

The particular flavors in this year’s stew can be isolated in other ways, too. Mountain Jam is a Warren Haynes joint. While Haynes’s mission appears to be to play with everyone, his imprimatur comes from the Allman Brothers blues-based branch of jam rather than the Grateful Dead branch, and that helps account for the high percentage of blues/rock fiber (Gary Clark, Jr., the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Charles Bradley and of course Haynes’s own Gov’t Mule).

Mountain Jam is also a WDST joint, and that station is historically synonymous with the Adult Album Alternative radio format. This explains the sometimes odd-man-out inclusion of singer/songwriters and radio-friendly bands (Dawes, the Givers and Mountain Jam alums like Jackie Greene and Dr. Dog). Jam as a genre, of course, has traditionally been at war with radio.

All contradictions aside, jam as a scene and a concept has held together well enough over the years to stand in stark opposition to a recent perversion of the word, “jams” or “jamz”: music productized as a consumer accessory not unlike soft drinks and sneakers. “Jamz” travel with the individual and are enjoyed through headphones in a personalized bubble of consumer choice and brand identification. For the thousands who will assemble on the hillside at Hunter Mountain in a few weeks, “jam” still has an awful lot more to do with community and the give-and-take of performance.

Mountain Jam runs from Thursday, May 31 to Sunday, June 3 at Hunter Mountain in Hunter. For more information, visit http://http://mountainjam.com.

 

 

 

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  1. Even though this year’s festival isn’t as “jammy” as the previous years, I still think the lineup is solid and I’m really looking forward to Franti. If anything, they’ve diversified the genres more and it’s going to be a blast either way. It’ll be an accepting environment as always :) We’ll be in the Awareness Village for all four days in our booth and we’ll be helping travelers by letting them charge their phones at our booth as well.

    Best,
    Adam Bernstein

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